The Black Lives Matter movement, originating in the US, is having a major impact globally. This is the largest protest movement against racism, at least since the fall of apartheid and probably since the Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 1960s. We all need to reflect on its implications and how we should react locally. The final end of colonialism with the fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the president of South Africa in 1994 was a major milestone in a global fight against racism. But the corrosive influence of the related curses of tribalism and ethnic chauvinism continue across sub Saharan Africa and indeed the rest of the world.
All progressive people, especially those from minority ethnic groups need to support the fight against any form of racism or ethnic chauvinism. We need to create and maintain anti-racist societies and workplaces. We need to develop cultures where any form of racism or ethnic chauvinism are not accepted. So we all need to build the personal and collective confidence to ensure that any form of racism or ethnic chauvinism is challenged. Indeed we need to go further and challenge any form of ethnic generalisations. It is not true that the Kikuyu are good business people nor that Asians make good shopkeepers. It is equally untrue that Kambas are best at domestic work or that the Swahili are lazy.
Any such generalisations cannot be true for a whole ethnic group. Such a sloppy way of thinking can be used to justify ethnic chauvinism and certainly helps to divide the different ethnic groups. How can communities be successful in fighting against injustice or trade unions be successful in fighting for wage rises if the community or the workers involved are divided along ethnic lines? We can only successfully fight against injustice, poverty and inequality if we are not divided along ethnic lines – hence the traditional trade union slogan: ‘The workers united will never be defeated!’
Such ethnic disunity can descend into racist attacks, violence or worse. Ethnic chauvinism or tribalism is currently seen to be behind several civil wars including those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (between Christians and Muslims), South Sudan (between the two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer) and in Cameroon (between English and French speaking districts). Many African countries are based on a concoction of different tribal and ethnic groups. But things would probably not be any better if the international borders were rearranged along ethnic lines.
South Sudan includes peoples who are representatives of at least three of the four major ethnic groups that make up the indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa: Nilotic, Bantu and Afro-Asiatic. However, the recent civil war was between two of the most closely related ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Despite their close relations, the civil war was vicious and may have resulted in 400,000 deaths in less than five years between December 2013 and April 2018. The killings continue with over 120 killed earlier this week as part of the disarmament process. In addition, over a third of the population may have been displaced internally or have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.
The genocide in Rwanda was between two groups that may have potentially been invented by the French colonialists. There is a famous case of a bus being stopped by a militia during the genocide and the people in the bus had to divide themselves between the Tutsis and the Hutus. Otherwise it would not have been possible to distinguish between these two groups. The differences are predominantly economic, the Tutsis are traditionally cattle herders and the Hutus are mainly farmers. This did not stop over 800,000 people being slaughtered over a period of only 100 days in 1994.
It is not as if different ethnic groups cannot live peacefully together. In most African countries, the different ethnic groups have generally happily lived together. The sporadic violence that has broken out is the exception rather than the rule. We have to look for other reasons for these outbreaks of ethnic tension and violence.
The era of Neoliberalism over the last three decades has seen a huge increase in inequality and any progress towards eliminating poverty has been minimal. These economic issues are the real basis for racism and ethnic chauvinism across sub-Saharan Africa. A World Bank report showed South Africa to be one the most unequal societies on earth. This is the basis for the xenophobic violence that has broken out over the last few years against immigrant workers from Zimbabwe and other African countries. This has also been whipped up by local leaders for their own benefit. So the Zulu traditional leader, King Goodwill Zwelithini, demanded that foreigners leave the country, insinuating that they were ‘lice’ and ‘ants’.
More generally racism and ethnic chauvinism are used by many rulers to deflect criticism about their policies, poverty and inequality. So Donald Trump in the US is blaming the Chinese for his economic problems, increased unemployment and mis-handling of the Covid-19 crisis. But it is not even clear that the majority members of the dominant ethnic group actually benefit from racism. In the US, for example, the most segregated states with the worst racism are also those with the lowest wages for white workers – and of course for black workers. This situation has generally become worse over the last 40 years with rising general inequality in society.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, a society that has been riven with discrimination between Protestants and Catholics. The Protestants may have earned more than their Catholic neighbours, but at least on average, they earned less than workers in other parts of Britain.
Currently the major form of ethnic chauvinism in Nigeria is the demonization of Fulani herders from the north of the country. As in other parts of the Sahel, the cattle herders are forced south by global warming into farming areas with little spare land due to population growth. The politicians stir up the conflict to gain partisan support and fail to address the poverty on both sides. The current president of Nigeria is himself a Fulani, so criticism and attacks on the Fulani can be used cynically by opponents of Buhari.
The inequality arising from Neoliberalism has also led to increased levels of corruption. The civil war in Sudan was over the division of the spoils from the oil industry between the leaders of two of the major ethnic groups. The current president, Salva Kiir, has benefited by avoiding any elections over the last decade; his opponent Riek Machar, his former deputy president, has used the civil war to strengthen his own position. South Sudanese politicians and military officials have received essential support from individuals and corporations from across the world and have reaped huge profits from these dealings.
But ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia are not limited to Africa. The Modi Government in India is using Hindu chauvinism to attack Muslims to distract from the massive inequality in India. China is facing growing criticism over its persecution of some Muslim minority groups, huge numbers of whom are allegedly being held in internment camps in the remote far western Xinjiang region.
Over the last few decades, with the rise of Neoliberalism, the rich and powerful have benefited hugely from rising inequality and the associated corruption. One key way that a united response has been avoided is by playing the race card. As a result, the poor of all ethnic groups have suffered. Where unity has been achieved despite of these divisions, the poor of all ethnic groups have benefited. Where the poor have been able to provide a united front against the rich and powerful of whatever ethnic group then racism and chauvinism have melted away. During the major national strike in January 2012 the Muslim workers in the north of Nigeria went out of their way to protect the Christians at prayer. Similarly in the south of the country Christian workers protected their Muslim colleagues.
This is a clear lesson for us, the working and poor masses must unite if we are to successfully take on the corrupt bosses. The alternative is a descent into nationalism, tribalism and ethnic bitterness, pitting one group of poor people against another, whilst the rich laugh all the way to the bank!